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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tips: Know Your Oven

+ Gooey, Caramel and Cinnamon Bread:

Yes, doesn't that sound delicious? Mouthwatering? Sumptuous, delightful... the perfect way to wake up? Well, I can tell you it is, unless you're coming down with the dreaded stomach flu of 2010. Which, let me say, was no walk in the park. Fortunately, I hadn't had the time to really gorge myself on it before the unexpected nausea, pain, sweats and inexplicable weakness hit. And don't forget the two days I couldn't stand to even look at the loaf sitting, barely touched, in the fridge. But, let's just leave the ordeal at that. I ate a few crumbs when it came out of the oven, collected a few globs of chewy, browned caramel on one crispy cinnamon-sugar layer and let me say this: it was fabulous. Just look at it.

But fabulous could easily have been disastrous. I did two things differently from the original recipe, but the most influential thing was definitely changing the shape and size of the pan. Even though I use half the ingredients, my cooking time had to be increased because of the shape and depth of my loaf pan. Also, I lowered the cooking temperature. Why? Know your oven. It might sound dumb to say, but our oven bakes very hot.

Reader: Isn't that the point, Fajita?
Fajita: Well yes, but...

Take for example the fact that most cookie recipes are baked at 350. Our oven, however, bakes about 15-20 degrees hotter than the internal thermometer says. An oven that is too hot, especially when it comes to delicate things like cookies, means one of two things: 1) raw cookies with burned edges, or 2) burnt cookies. Sometimes, it means both. Although I don't usually do it for things like meats or potatoes or biscuits (considerably more heat tolerant) I reduced my temperature to 325 when I first put this "Cinnamon Bread" into the oven. I feared for the butter and sugar concoction at the bottom of the dish. At 30 minutes the top was puffed, just beginning to rise, and slightly crispy. A closer look revealed the ugly truth that the interior was still only partially cooked. Thus, I added another 10-15 minutes to the cooking time. If my temperature had been higher, like the recipe called for, my bread would quickly have become too dark, and the luscious caramel it naturally creates in the bottom of the dish a burned and sickly mess.

So, the moral of the story my friends is this: know thy oven, and you now thyself. There is nothing more disappointing than an undercooked cake, or a pan of cookies as dark and bitter as lumps of coal. So, if you oven tends to cook "hot", try reducing the temperature by 10-15 degrees. You may need to bake them a few minutes longer than you initially expected, but all is fair in love and war when it comes to cooking times. Just be vigilant. Try checking on them 5 minutes earlier than the recipe says. If you have reoccurring baking deficiencies, like burned cookies, look to your oven, and try and figure out if it is a temperature issue, a time issue, or some manhandling of your ingredients.

Well, that's about all the food talk I can stomach today.

Notes: Don't go to a Holiday Party if you're sick, or have been sick in the past two days. Just because you're germ ridden doesn't make you any more festive than the rest of us. Also, wash your hands. Vigilantly.

Gooey Caramel and Cinnamon Bread
Adapted from another recipe I can't find at the moment

1/2 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup raisins
5 tablespoons butter, melted
1 (12 oz) can refrigerator biscuits
1 tablespoon cinnamon mixed with 2 tablespoons sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 325. Grease a medium loaf pan.
2. Combine the walnuts, brown sugar, raisins and butter in a small bowl. Spoon half the mixture into the bottom of the greased loaf pan.
3. Cut each biscuit in quarters and toss with the cinnamon sugar. Arrange half the biscuits in the bottom of the loaf pan. Top with half the brown sugar and butter mixture. Cover with the remaining biscuits, arranging them prettily.
4. Bake for 40-45 minutes or until the top is puffed and golden, and the interior biscuits are cooked. To check, use a knife inserted into the loaf to push the biscuits apart and ensure that they are cooked thoroughly.
5. Let sit in the pan for 3-5 minutes, then run a knife around the edge of the pan and place a large plate on top of the biscuits. Invert the loaf, remove the pan and serve warm with remaining caramel sauce.

Refrigerate leftovers for 2-3 days, and microwave before serving.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Salted Caramel Corn

Best Efforts:

You know how there are always things you *mean* to do before a deadline, but never seem to? The things that, despite your best efforts, you're still burning the midnight oil to complete the night before. SPUDS doesn't just understand how you feel, we fully support the last minute scramble. We firmly believe that necessity isn't only the mother of invention; it's the reason all those midnight snacks taste so good. Bearing that in mind, we'd like to present you a very easy caramel corn recipe, posted at the last minute and with mere hours to spare before Christmas.

In college, my best efforts to finish my latest submission for fiction workshop, or that twenty-five page Spanish final, with days instead of hours to spare, always managed to fall short. Sure, I turned the assignments in, but never until just before the deadline. And, despite misconceptions bred incestuously in schoolrooms across the country, adults do it too: vehicle registrations, field trip permission slips, lunch money, taxes, holiday shopping. It's the nature of the beast, so let's not pretend we can fight it. And, in honor of embracing our last-minute nature, SPUDS would like to present you a short list of some of our favorite (under $20) Holiday gift ideas selected especially for the deadline crunching shopper, including a delicious treat/gift idea that takes under 30 minutes, and $10, to assemble:

SPUDS Holiday Gift Ideas:
  1. For the English Major: "The Glamour of Grammar" by Roy Peter Clark
  2. For the Music Major: Os Tribalistas "Velha Infancia"-for a taste CLICK! (or) Jack Black's "Brutal Legend" for XBOX, PS3 and Wii
  3. For the Co-worker: Give a "Global Giving" gift card, and let them choose a project that inspires them.
  4. For the Room-mate: Socks, to replace the ones you keep taking by accident.
  5. For the Coffee-addict: Cafe gift card + homemade: chocolate chip cookies, snicker-doodles, biscotti, orange zucchini bread, easy toffee or Salted Caramel Corn.
Making candy corn is deceptively simple; the caramel part doesn't even require a spoon to stir it. That being so, I was a little unsure of this recipe at first. Wouldn't the sugar burn at a high heat? What if it stuck to the pan? Are you sure caramel corn is really that easy? But, after a quick turn about the kitchen after work last night I realized it was easy, and easy to make on a whim because of the simple ingredients that *all* students have on hand: sugar, popcorn. Because this recipe does not require a candy thermometer it feels even more accessible and fool proof. The key is, like most things, not to burn the mixture. I kept my heat a little lower than the original recipe suggested because I'm skittish that way. But, other than a little organization, and a good eye for color, this recipe is hard to ruin. As I'm sure most any chem major could tell you, the bonds created by the sugar and water when applied to high heat are really incredible. In fact, it is this process that gives crunchy treats like toffee their distinctive snappy texture. And the best part is, the sugary residue left in the pot is easily broken down with the reapplication of water and a little time in the sink. So, take a deep breath. The land of sweets is just within your grasp.

Notes: As soon as the caramel is a light golden color turn off the heat (see photo), it will continue to deepen in color. If you let the caramel get too dark before you turn off the heat it might burn and become bitter. Be sure to add the popcorn to the pot, and not the other way around to ensure the corn is totally coated with caramel. Once the popcorn has begun to cool, (to the point where you can handle it without burning yourself) be sure to break it up into small clusters. Don't be afraid to add mix-ins like marshmallows, chocolate chips, nuts or candy pieces once it is totally cool. Package in air tight containers, or cellophane bags, and you've got the perfect stocking stuffer, or late night snack for frosty winter nights in front of the tv.

Adapted slightly from Gale Gand's "Caramel Corn with Salted Peanuts and Cherries"
6 (1 cup) servings

2 cups sugar
2/3 cup water
1 tablespoon butter
6 cups popped popcorn
3/4 cup toasted pecans
1/4 teaspoon salt

1. Line a baking sheet with tin foil. Toast your pecans over low-heat, and set aside.
2. Add the sugar to a deep sauce pot. Slowly, pour the water around the perimeter of the pot, being carefully not to splash sugar up on the sides of the pot. Draw your finger through the sugar to form an "x". DO NOT STIR.
3. Cook the sugar over medium-high heat. When it comes to a full boil, cook it for 10-15 minutes. The sugar should be lightly golden brown in color. During the last two or three minutes of cooking, swirl the pot gently to even out the color.
4. Turn off the heat and then stir in the butter. Quickly add the popcorn and pecans.
5. Immediately turn the mixture out onto the greased cookie sheet, add the salt and toss to coat. Let it cool for a few minutes, until it is cool enough to handle. Break the mixture up into clusters and cool completely at room temperature before storing in an airtight container.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Easy-Peasy Toffee

I know I said I wouldn't:

But I just ate a still warm Peanut-butter cookie, chased by two glasses of milk; skim milk of course. It wasn't my fault. I came home from ballet class, quivering thighs and puffy toes and all, and what should my wandering eyes find? Cookies?! Cookies?! Yes, yes that's what I need to really nail that double pirouette... cookies.

... or chips, spicy chips. I ate the most amazing bag of hot and spicy chips today: "Mama Zuma's Revenge." I saw a bag of them last weekend while working an event at our local Whole Foods. Somehow, despite the fact that I was simultaneously in the wine section and hot foods bar, I left without buying anything. I guess that's what standing for three hours hawking gourmet chocolates does to you. Regardless, when I hopped (literally, the high was only 25 degrees today) down the street to grab lunch this afternoon, I couldn't help noticing these chips again. Who is that saucy, voluptuous woman? Why do I feel like a super hero sidekick holding the bag? What is she doing with those chili peppers? I can tell you: making the most amazing chips I've ever had give me heartburn. If you like spicy, "Mama Zuma's Revenge" gives you double the fun. Eaten by themselves, or layered between cool slabs of avocado and Jarlsberg Swiss on a sandwich, they are some of the most delightful chips I've ever singed my lips on. They are also, sort of locally made, if you live in Virginia. SPUDS is proud call Route 11 Chips our neighbor (sort of). Did I mention that they were really spicy? That's an understatement, of course.

So what better way to cut the burn than with something sweet, and maybe a little cool? Well, start with a good, tall glass of milk. Then, when you've quenched the flames, try making a batch of this toffee! I, personally, relish the confetti of red and white peppermint dust on top of the chocolate. It also adds a welcome freshness, and cuts a little bit of the fatty sweetness that comes with a grocery store bag of morsels. I know, I'm a snob. I can't help it; it's my job (snubbing inferior chocolate, that is).

My Mom makes these bars every year to great acclaim, and usually only with milk chocolate; although, I think we tried white chocolate once to really amplify the festivity factor. But, considering you won't have to invest in a candy thermometer, and you don't even need to temper the chocolate, the recipe is really a no-brainer no matter what kind of chocolate you use. We like to package it up in little cellophane bags with some pretty ribbon and give them away as gifts. For about $6 you can whip up a number of delicious, yummy favors in a flash. Or, you can always keep them for yourself... no one will really now if you do. Unfortunately, I was at work all day today, and missed the third round of toffee making that has taken place at home in the last 72 hours, so photos are a little scarce. I do hope you will forgive me. It really is an easy recipe! Be creative with your toppings, and if you find something that is undeniably extraordinary tell SPUDS about it!

Notes: Be careful to keep your temperature low. If you singe the butter and brown sugar, or the bars get too dark while baking, you had better start again. If the toffee burns, like garlic, it will turn bitter and be all but inedible.

Toffee Bars

2 stick butter
1 cup light brown sugar
1 1/2 packages saltine crackers
1 (11.5 ounce) bag milk or semi-sweet chocolate chips

ground nuts, peppermints, espresso beans or sprinkles to decorate

1. Line a standard sized cookie sheet with tin foil. Try to use a single sheet of foil, or carefully overlap two pieces. Otherwise, your toffee will bubble down onto the tray and stick. Preheat the oven to 325.
2. Line the cookie sheet with saltine crackers, breaking the crackers to fit against the edges of the sheet so that all the foil is covered.
3. Melt the butter and brown sugar together in a saucepan on low, stirring constantly until the butter and brown sugar are totally combined.
4. Once the mixture is combined, let it bubble gently for another minute or minute and half. If the mixture darkens significantly it has burned and will taste bitter. If this happens: return to Start, do not pass go!
5. Immediately pour the butter mixture over the crackers, spreading with the back of the spoon gently only where necessary. Once it is smooth, bake it for 13-15 minutes or until it is only golden brown (never brown).
6. Remove the toffee from the oven and immediately scatter the chocolate chips over the toffee. Let them sit for 1-2 minutes, or until they being to soften. Then, smooth them with a knife or the back of a spoon, being careful not to disturb the crackers.
7. Scatter chopped peppermint dust or ground nuts over the toffee and set aside to harden. Once the toffee is totally cool, break it into pieces and store in an airtight container for 7-10 days.

Monday, December 13, 2010

White Chicken Pizza

French bread snow day:

There is a place here at home where white pizza isn't just sinful, it's down right damnation on a plate. My brother and I have been known to consume 3/4 of an entire pizza even before we sit down to pasta. It's just impossible to stop and say, "gosh let me save room for that amazing pasta with a whole head of garlic and two bushels of mushrooms bathed in the finest imported olive oil." I mean, who does that? There is always more room when you're eating pasta.

The restaurant is minute, housing two booths and maybe a half dozen tables. The line is, typically, out the door and the wait is even longer. It is totally worth it. I just wish I was taller, so I could better observe the white pizza preparation through the crowd. From what I can tell they dredge the dough in olive oil, scrub the crust with garlic, smear it with a blend of cheeses and bake it until the crust blisters and curls without a sprig of parsley in sight. Heaven. Bliss. Oh dear. Bottom line: it is the best and only white pizza I have ever let anywhere close to my waist line. Well, that is a little exaggeration; I love white pizza, in a fiery red pepper flake kind of way.

For me, the most important part is attaining an equally crispy and chewy crust. And, although I have a real weakness for making crust by hand, because it is one of those times I feel like a real chef, I love a good French bread pizza for reasons of taste as well as convenience. Make it a white pizza and I'm there. What could be easier, or more inexplicably crusty, chewy and soft all at the same time? Using a baguette also cuts prep time in half; you can even use your crumb catching toaster oven! Because, as college students I'm sure you aren't using it enough already... Just be kind to your fastidious type-A roommate, (every apartment has one) and use a little tin foil this time. Oozey, blackened bubbles of cheese are a real pain to clean.

The complexities of a good crust aside, this recipe is as close to delicious as we kitchen peons will ever get when it comes to a great pizza.
Just be generous with the garlic, and sparing on anything that will make the bread sink and get slimy. Less is more when it comes to cheese, mainly because cheese brings extra oil to the table when it gets hot. Personally, I really dig the idea of smearing the bread with a film of ricotta cheese; because, I love it. But, if you don't have any on hand, or don't feel like buying it, you can always skip it. This pizza is best hot, straight from the oven. Adding the chicken brings the pizza up to speed with a simple dinner, but you can even cut it into smaller squares and serve it as an appetizer with a little white wine: something citrusy and crisp like a sauvignon blanc. But, that's just me wanting a glass of the grapefruit heavy sauvignon blanc I had in Charleston once. Oh dear.

PS> Happy snow day for those of you who are experiencing winter weather!

Variation on a recipe by Rachael Ray + my dreams and imagination

1 loaf French bread, split
1/2 cup pre-cooked chicken
1/3 cup ricotta cheese (optional)
olive oil
1 clove garlic
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
fresh parsley
black pepper

1. Preheat the broiler to high.
2. Split the loaf of bread in half and place on a baking sheet. Drizzle the cut side of the bread with olive oil, according to your preference.
3. Toast the bread 1-2 minutes under the broiler. Remove from the heat and rub vigorously with garlic.
4. Smear the toasted garlic bread with a thin layer of ricotta cheese, if using it. Don't put too much on or the bread will get soggy. Top the ricotta cheese with the chicken and a layer of Parmesan.
5. Put the pizza back under the broiler for another 1-2 minutes or until the cheese is bubbling and the bread looks toasted. While it is toasting chop the parsley.
6. Top the warm pizza with fresh cracked black pepper and the parsley. Serve very warm.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Scrambled Breakfast Burrito

+ 5 Awesome, Amazing "free" Ingredients:

Is it twenty-three degrees where you live, too? Maybe it's just me, but whenever it is extraordinarily cold I regress to breakfast at every meal. Point in case: I ate cereal for breakfast and lunch today. Not because I craved cereal, but because it was all I had time for. I was late getting ready for work, largely because I hibernated until the last minute in my 80 degree bedroom, and partially because I was writing thank-you notes for early Christmas gifts.

Christmas gifts?! Yes, two to speak of that directly effect all of you! One, is the most beautiful baking handbook by, who else, the Angel of the Kitchen: Julia Child. Every page is an ode to the glorious, wondrous world of breads, bagels and brioche. The glossy insert pages are so crisp and so beautifully composed I wouldn't be surprised if I could reach right in and pull off a wedge of the "Rustic Potato Loaf". But, if delusions of edible grandeur are happening I think I'll satisfy my sweet tooth with the "Gingerbread Baby Cakes" instead. Or, maybe the "Hungarian Shortbread" with soft cakey layers and a jammy satin ribbon of rhubarb that would make the Sugarplum Fairy green with envy. "Baking with Julia" is a steal at $26. 40 on Amazon.com, and would make a great gift. But, if you don't get around to buying the whole book before the new year, SPUDS will be posting a recipe of your choice to help ring in the festivities! Cast your vote today!

Disclaimer: SPUDS is not giving away a free copy of "Baking with Julia" due to budget restrictions.

What is gift number two, you ask? Well, that one was even more of a surprise. Some of you who might have been reading last month, may have noticed a new badge on the blog spot. Sadly, "SPUDS" did not make the Iron Foodie competition as an official contestant; however, we did receive some very expensive consolation prizes for free! Free!! The catch, isn't really a catch at all. Marx Foods, a wholesale gourmet products distributor, sent SPUDS 5 product samples of our choosing to encourage recipe creativity that showcases their exotic ingredients. Here's what SPUDS chose:
  • Ginger salt
  • Lavender Buds
  • Star Anise
  • Black Trumpet Mushrooms
  • Saffron Threads
SPUDS is very excited to start working on recipes. (Got ideas for something you'd like us to cook up? Leave a comment on this post OR our fan page on Facebook). But, in the mean time graduate applications, work, wrapping presents and, of course, eating will be taking priority. It all feels a little daunting. Since every meal these days is a scramble to the finish, you might as well enjoy an incredibly easy breakfast/dinner burrito. Just be sure to eat it it in your pajamas... in front of the t.v., or in bed if you can convince someone to bring it to you.

Makes 2 very happy burritos

4 eggs
1/8 teaspoon salt, pepper
1/4 cup finely diced onion
3/4 cup shredded cheddar/jack cheese blend
1 cup pebre (or your favorite fresh tomato salsa)

sour cream, to serve

1. Heat a small non-stick skillet over medium heat.
2. Finely dice the onion and set aside. Break the eggs into a small dish and whisk briefly with the onions, salt and pepper.
3. Add half the cheese to the eggs before adding both to the skillet. Scramble until the eggs are opaque and no longer runny.
4. Warm the tortillas in the microwave and then fill with the cooked eggs. Serve with the fresh salsa, more fresh cilantro and sour cream. Enjoy immediately.

Want to jazz it up? Add some cooked turkey bacon or black beans... or both!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Make & Bake Bran Muffins

now w/ bananas:

I'm not entirely sure how to say this, but it has to be said and whether I say it quickly, or ramble aimlessly, doesn't really make much difference. We bought an artificial tree; yes, the kind that has static, plastic needles and a spidery wire base. The sort that still catches fire, although not as often, and comes pre-lit with strands of white lights that are bound to die out in sections year after year. We didn't want to do it, but it was out of our hands: there were only six blue spruce trees in our city of 200,000+, and they were squat little brutes at that. I, personally, have been moping since 3:00pm Sunday and bringing down the whole event.

Of course, SPUDS has nothing against artificial trees. In fact, SPUDS admits that they are just as beautiful as their live counterparts... so long as they are in other peoples houses. There are many amazing trees out there, and not all of them are the sticky, fragrant pines that I can't help but smash my nose against the car window to oogle at as we drive by. I don't mean to make myself out to be the victim of a holiday marketing travesty; although, that would be a pretty good description. Still, it would be selfish and cruel of me to do so. I say this only so that when I tell you we spent two days looking for our beloved blue spruce, you know that I mean it.

Luckily, I had a whim to make some bran muffins Saturday morning before work, which meant that Sunday started off on a very optimistic note. In addition, we had our first dusting of snow, I had a day off from work and one toasty pair of flannel pajamas. In college, as soon as I got my hands on my own kitchen in college, albeit one filled with appliances from the late 80s, I made raisin bran bread on an almost weekly basis to enjoy in said pajamas. I especially liked to smear cream cheese or peanut butter on slices of it when I was trying my hardest to postpone finishing a paper. (Whether it was 3pm or 3am I was usually in my pajamas). But, if I didn't have bread ready I was forced to wander around in a foul temper, looking for a replacement.

Then, I found this recipe on the back of a box of bran we had at home last year. Now, I only have to mix up the batter once every three weeks to enjoy my favorite muffins any time. I mean you can leave the stuff (unbaked) in the fridge for up to three weeks! For someone who likes to spend their entire Sunday and Monday evening wandering around frigid Christmas tree lots this "make and bake" feature is very important. Disappointment tastes even more bitter on an empty stomach. And, since it is December, I took it upon myself to use some dried fruit: apricots, apples, papaya, raisins, pineapple etc.

Which reminds me: it is December. We've got a few changes here this month, maybe you've already noticed one. Thanks to a friend, also known as the Burrito Bandito, SPUDS will have twice as many delicious photos per post! Apparently, it has something to do with this thing called HTML. I know. The other changes? I haven't quite decided yet... For the sake of bellies grumbling before finals, SPUDS will be returning to our usual broadcast schedule: easy every day meals. But, great inexpensive gift ideas like Puppy Chow, Toffee Bars, Chocolate Dipped Peppermint Sticks and the like will manage to squeeze into the lime light every once in a while, too. So, keep your eyes peeled for more tasty dishes later this week.

Got a great gift idea? Want to share a recipe? Be sure to join our fanpage on Facebook: cool kids and post/message recipes to the Wall. We've got 31 followers and if we make it to 50 by December 24th SPUDS will personally consider it a Christmas miracle. Not on Facebook? Email your thoughts, concerns and ideas straight to SPUDS @ stbreadwater@gmail.com or leave a comment here on the blog spot.

Adapted from Hodgson Mill

1 1/2 cups wheat bran
1/2 cup boiling water
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 small banana, mashed
1/4 cup butter
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup raisins (or other dried fruit)

1. Mix half the wheat bran (3/4 cup) with the 1/2 cup of boiling water in a small boil. Let sit to absorb the water.
2. In another bowl blend the sugar and butter.
3. Sift the flour, baking soda, salt and spices. Combine the moist bran with the egg, banana, remaining bran, buttermilk, butter mixture and flour and spices.
4. Stir until blended. Fold in the dried fruit and either refrigerate for up to 3 weeks or bake at once.
5. To bake: preheat the oven to 350 and either line a muffin tin with liners or butter them. Stir the batter (if it has been sitting) and spoon 3/4 of the way full with batter. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the muffin comes out clean. Cool slightly before serving.

*Batter will keep up to three weeks in the fridge. Baked muffins are good up to two weeks in an airtight container.